For Orioles minor leaguers, team-provided housing allows them more time to focus on baseball: ‘It really is different’

The Baltimore Sun
The Baltimore Sun
Orioles minor league outfielder Kyle Stowers spent last year living out of hotels as he made the jump from High-A Aberdeen to Triple-A Norfolk. “Having an actual apartment makes it just feel so much more homey, makes it feel like you have your own place,” Stowers said. Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/TNS

Cole Uvila and his roommate got off the bus and stepped into the sticky North Carolina heat — a kind of heat that didn’t wane, even at 3 a.m., when the High-A Down East Wood Ducks returned home from a road trip. All Uvila wanted to do was sleep.

But when he and his roommate got to their apartment in 2019, the air conditioning was broken — again. That sticky heat had infiltrated the walls of their “bargain” accommodations, and Uvila had a decision to make.

Uvila chose the bathtub, hoping the cool lining would provide some comfort. His roommate opted for his car, leaving the air conditioning running all night to sleep.

“We all have stories,” Uvila said, pointing around the field at his teammates during batting practice ahead of Triple-A Norfolk’s Opening Day on Tuesday. “Everybody has stories like that.”

Those stories could be fewer in frequency now, though, after Major League Baseball passed a rule at the end of last season that made teams responsible for providing housing for minor leaguers . Across the league, concerns remain about the paltry wages many players receive and the level of housing provided by each individual organization.

But when Uvila walked into a fully furnished apartment last week in Norfolk provided by the Orioles organization for him, his wife and his dog, he couldn’t help but smile.

“It’s different. It really is different,” said Uvila, a reliever in his first season with Baltimore. “Not dealing with stuff like that, it makes it about [baseball], which is huge.”

The Orioles are providing their players at minor league affiliates with fully furnished two- and three-bedroom apartments and town houses, said Jennifer Grondahl, senior vice president of community development and communications. Each player has an individual bedroom with a queen bed. And players with spouses are provided a single apartment.

That’s a change from last year. Outfielder Kyle Stowers, who was drafted in 2019, hasn’t experienced a normal season — the pandemic canceled the minor league season in 2020 and restrictions were still in place in 2021. He spent last year living out of hotels as he made the jump from High-A Aberdeen to Triple-A Norfolk.

“Having an actual apartment makes it just feel so much more homey, makes it feel like you have your own place,” Stowers said. “And there’s a lot to be said for not having to be worried about that stuff and allowing you to focus more on what happens here at the field.”

Other players faced more uncertainty last year, said Harry Marino, executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers , a nonprofit that seeks to improve working conditions for minor league baseball players who, unlike major leaguers, are not represented by a union. Marino, a former Orioles minor leaguer himself, said many players struggled with housing insecurity, paying for their own living arrangements while breaking leases each call-up or demotion. When the advocacy group raised concerns about the housing situation last year by sharing the experiences of a group of Double-A Bowie Baysox players who considered sleeping in their cars, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias dismissed the claim as “not accurate” and “a reference to hearsay.”

At one point in 2019, Uvila had three leases — at his Low-A, High-A and fall league locations. That won’t be an issue this season. According to a source with direct knowledge of the situation, each lease for players within Baltimore’s pipeline spans six months. If a player moves teams, the organization will fill that vacancy with a new player.

It hasn’t been as fluid across the league, however.

“At this point it seems clear that different major league organizations are going to be handling minor league housing differently this season,” said Marino, whose organization notes that the median annual salary for a minor league player is $12,000, just below the federal poverty level. “Some teams are giving every player their own bedroom and making accommodations for players with spouses and families. Other teams are taking shortcuts and failing to solve the minor league housing problem by either putting two players in the same bedroom, using hotel rooms and host families or failing to make accommodations for families with spouses and families.”

In Baltimore, at least, some of that headache has been mitigated. Uvila recalled playing for Double-A Frisco last year, an affiliate of the Texas Rangers. He and some of his teammates “literally didn’t make enough money to live in any of the apartments in the area,” he said, forcing them into hotels.

He had saved enough money from an offseason job to afford his own room. Others, though, shared rooms to save. While Marino emphasized low player salaries is the root of the issue, teams providing housing makes it more manageable.

“The element too that I think a lot of people aren’t talking about is: It’s not coming out of my pocket,” Uvila said. “Last year in Round Rock, I was making $3,000 a month. But my rent was $2,200. So, you’re not really going forward. You’re just kind of surviving.”

Uvila said with a salary increase this year, his second in Triple-A, he’ll be able to start saving money. By the time he reaches the offseason, he might not have to immediately find an additional job — “which means more time to focus on training and nutrition and all that stuff,” Uvila said. “The kind of domino effect this could set off for all of us is super exciting.”

On Monday night, Uvila sat in the living room of his new apartment, feet up on his coffee table. When teammate David Lebron stopped by to watch Kansas beat North Carolina to win the NCAA men’s basketball national championship, Uvila took a moment to compare his current situation with what he experienced last year — and the rest of his minor league career.

“I was like, ‘You know right now, we’d be moving and signing paperwork,’” Uvila said. “And now it’s done. We just showed up.”

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